WASHINGTON, Oct. 30 (UPI) -- Invasive species don't just come from the animal kingdom; plants and fungi can also arrive from abroad, wreaking havoc on native ecosystems. That is what's happening in Europe, where a new type of chytrid fungus, original to Southeast Asia, is threatening native salamander species.
According to a new study published this week in the journal Science, the deadly skin-eating virus has already decimated salamander populations in Europe and could prove devastating should it arrive in the United States.
"With nearly 200 species, the United States is a global hotspot of salamander biodiversity," Peter Jenkins, president of the Center for Invasive Species Prevention, said in a recent press release. "If we don't act fast, we could lose these vital and popular animals from the wild."
Scientists first became clued in to the presence of the disease after nearly all of the fire salamanders in the Netherlands suddenly vanished. Biologists suspected Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd. Instead, they found a new fungus, a relative of Bd -- Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, or Bs.
In laboratory setting, the fungus was able to eradicate 11 of 17 tested species, all from Europe and North America. Every infected salamander died, some within just a couple weeks. While the fungus isn't harmful to frogs or toads, the experiment offers a sobering warning of how quickly they could wipe out local salamander populations. Newts, a type of salamander, are especially vulnerable.
Conservationists say stronger regulation of the animal trade is needed to ensure infected individuals don't enter the United States. Between, 2001 and 2009, more than 2.3 million Chinese fire-bellied newts were imported into the country.
"It's not here yet," ecologist Dede Olson, of the U.S. Forest Service, told National Geographic. "So we have time, and there is hope."